Category Archives: Foreknowledge

Norris Clarke’s Explanation of God’s Way of Knowing

Clarke was a Thomist. As such he was committed to the idea of God as pure actuality and timeless. Yet, as most Catholics do (which separates them from Calvinists) Clarke also believed in true libertarian freedom. But then how can God know free choices, since they would seem to “actualize” God’s own knowledge? (The absolute determinist option – that God knows by determining – is not open to Clarke.)

In previous posts I’ve laid out many of the problems in various models of a timeless God’s way of knowing free willed acts. They all break down insofar as God becomes an eternally passive receiver of information, to which he must “react.” But “reaction” (and reception) is something a timeless, changeless God cannot do. Thus, while certain models may explain how God eternally knows free acts (by eternally passively receiving knowledge of them), these models make God unable to actually respond to or act on what he knows. For that creates sequence in God’s acts, which consequently makes him temporal.

Now, Norris Clarke had an interesting take on this problem. He supposed that God knows free choices, not by unilaterally determining them, nor by passively receiving knowledge of them, but by synergistically and actively doing them with the creature itself. As he says, “God knows not by being acted upon, but through his own action in us.” (A Philosophical Approach to God.)

Now this approach deserves some attention. Can it solve the problems that the traditional divine reception model creates (where God is passively receiving knowledge, e.g. on a watchtower)? For one, if Clarke is correct here, it would follow that God’s creative act – his granting of free will – would be radically different from what is normally supposed in the classic literature. God’s bringing into being free beings would be the same thing as, or logically connected to, the opening up of himself to various determinate actions in and through these beings themselves. Thus God’s act of creating would simultaneously also be a divine self-limitation or vulnerability, insofar as God really allows his creative powers to flow through channels which may or may not be pleasing to him. This would not make God “dependent on” creatures to actualize his own nature against his will on creatures. But it would entail that God has so chosen in accordance with his will to be able to be actualized in his nature by free creatures. (There is a world of difference here.) If this makes God’s will dependent on creatures for the fulfillment of a desire it is only because he has so freely chosen to allow his desire to be dependent on something outside himself. And so again we come to a divine emptying, a divine humility, inherent in the very act of creating and relating to the world.

But perhaps this isn’t so radical a view after all. For have not theists for thousands of years believed at least in some rudimentary form that God in granting free will has also limited his own omnipotence and power in the world?

What is perhaps more interesting – at least to me – is whether or not Clarke’s view can save us from the Causal Loop objection. (You can see that objection fully laid out here: In short, the objection shows that if God receives a particular free willed act at time 1 into his knowledge by passively receiving it, then he cannot use that knowledge to interact with the creation, for that would imply a) God being temporal; and b) a causal loop, since each moment of time would already be present to a timeless God.

But if Clarke is right, then God is not passively receiving moments of time or free willed act, either one by one, or in a single divine moment of reception. Rather, God is in a single timeless act atively acting in and through free beings. This may be unimaginable – i.e. it may posit a mode of causation that we cannot form adequate mental pictures of – but does it involve a contradiction? It’s hard to see that it does. For, from God’s point of view, his one act of creation is single. Ergo, each separate thing in creation is, from this creative perspective, inseparably connected. We can get a grasp of this even a little bit by thinking about how each bit of matter must, if we could but follow out the connection of all physical objects, be affected by every other bit of matter. The idea that one star on this side of the universe is impacted by one star on another side is really only a magnified example of the fact that my skin is somewhat impacted by the space heater that is humming a few feet away from me. For each occasion in the universe has a definite affect on something else, and that, on something else, and so on, throughout the entire cosmos. In fact the word “universe” itself attests to this: for it is that thing which contains everything else and thus unites all separate and finite realities into a single causally connected plane.

Now, could something like this be the case with God and his knowledge of free events? If God is actively working at every moment of time, then every moment of time is connected in a particular way to every other. There would of course be a “forward” connection, as time moves from left to right. But there would also be a “backward” one, insofar as the providential God brings meaning to future events based on past actions.

Does this notion of God, timelessly “acting through” every free act throughout all time, avoid the Causal Loop objection? To say yes, one would have to show that no “single” free act in time is the “result” of God’s doing such and such at another point in time. For once you have the temporal stuff determining God you make God temporal.

But my head hurts too much right now to try to parse this out if God is in fact by his own free choice timelessly working in and through all active free causes in time. Maybe better minds can come along behind me and do that.


The Divine Ideas as Possible Grounds for God’s Middle Knowledge

“Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.)” CSL, Letter to Beversluis

There is a major difficulty in explaining how a timeless God in an “eternal now” could know our future free choices by simply seeing them. I made a rough sketch as to why this was in my previous post. My point was basically this. If God knows our future free choices timelessly, this really reduces to either a) that he knows them by determining them and therefore destroying free will or b)  that he is temporal, since he first gains knowledge of and then responds to various free choices in time. Therefore, if one wants to hold that God has infallible knowledge of our future free choices (I am aware some deny this), we must do more than simply assert that he “sees them in his eternal now.”

Let’s concede for a moment that there is enough Scriptural and experiential evidence to say that God’s having foreknowledge of future free choices is true; or that, in principle, there seems to be nothing spectacularly unbelievable in the idea of knowing what a person would freely choose in advance. I’m therefore going to suppose that there is no logical connection between merely foreknowing that something will come to pass and the necessity of the event that is foreknown. As far as I can tell, simply knowing what will happen does not strictly imply that the event itself happens because the agent foreknew it would happen.

Now, the idea of middle knowledge – i.e. God’s knowledge of what any free being would do in any circumstance – has been used to reconcile God’s foreknowledge and our free will. But traditionally the theory has been criticized because it provides no rational ground for such knowledge on God’s part. If God cannot observe free actions (which would mean he could not know them in advance), then in order to know them for certain he would have to determine their truth value by an act of will. But this really just reduces to theological determinism and destroys free choices. They would be what they are because God would have determined them so by his will.

But it seems to me there may in fact be a possible ground for middle knowledge, not in God’s will (which is voluntary), but in his nature. 

Imagine that there are such things as purely spiritual, individual essences. Could not these essences, as being singular and particular, possess their own properties in respect to how they would freely act in any situation? By freely I mean self-originatingly, insofar as the act came from that essence’s will, rather than the will of an outside agent. It seems possible that each agent, as an agent, has the property, as part of its own essence, of an infinite set of self-willed responses to whatever circumstances it may be in. In the same way a triangle has the property of three-sidedness inherent in its own essence as triangle, so too may Peter for instance have the property of self-acting in such a way in such and such a situation inherent in his own essence as Peter.

Now, the real point to grasp here is that the counterfactual facts of these essences are not something that exist because of God’s will. Rather, they exist in God’s mind, which is itself rooted in God’s nature. God’s will only comes into play when considering God’s creation of the world and that which is contingent. (Remember, classically theologians have always held that the Son is not produced by the Father’s will but by his nature.) Therefore, God’s will would have power over which circumstances he places the particular essences in – and this would constitute his providence over creation – but his will would not have power over the contents of his mind – i.e. what he perceives as possible and impossible, true and false, etc. This is no more problematic for God’s sovereignty, by the way, than supposing that God could not make a triangle with four sides or a married bachelor. The fact is that since the will naturally follows the intellect (rather than the opposite), it is just not possible, even for an omnipotent being, to perform actions logically impossible.

For that last point to work it is crucial we keep the relation between God’s mind and will correctly oriented. Grasping such a relation is necessary in order to understand how God could possess in his mind the ideas of creaturely essences, instantiate those essences, place them in all the circumstances he wanted to, and yet not be the one who “determined” their free actions. The core truth behind such a relation is this: the divine will follows the divine reason. That is, God “determines” not the content of his mind – for that is absurd – but rather his own action with respect to the content that is already there. Think of it this way. When a painter sits down to paint, does he determine the very nature of “shape” “color” “line” etc? Or does he determine, by using these concepts as they already exist in his mind, how to use shapes, colors, and lines?

Will and Intellect are closely intertwined, but the two are not the same thing and there is a relational priority between them. If a thing is “volitional” – that is, if we will a certain action – what we will or choose already presupposes a great many things we do not will or choose. In willing to drink beer rather than water I also do not will – in the sense that I lack the objective capacity for willing – that things like beer and water and taste and thirst exist. The will must necessarily function on “given” data that is presented to it that it does not itself freely choose. Think of the absurdity that would result if every choice meant that the options presented in the choice must themselves have been chosen.

So I want to make a sharp distinction between what exists

a) first in God’s knowledge, which he does not will in the sense of possessing voluntary power regarding (for remember what is “voluntary” is simply what the will chooses already supposing certain things it perceives as given and unchangeable) 


b) secondly through God’s act of will.

It seems to me reasonable to say that God’s act of will, in which he creates the essences he comprehends as ideas, and places them in various circumstances, does not itself determine how the creatures will freely choose in any situation. That is part of the unchangeable data given to it by the intellect that the will works on. The circumstances, the gifts of grace, the various emotional promptings, and the miraculous movement of the matter of the universe: these are things caused by the will of God. But the actual acts of free agents themselves – these, it seems to me, are simply things God instantiates or creates or allows to be, rather than actively determines.

But how, in regards to a mechanism, would God know creaturely essences which themselves have the ability to do otherwise? It seems to me we could just simply say that such knowledge is necessarily rooted in God’s nature as a potentially creative being. That is, it follows from God being necessarily possibly creative that he also has, necessarily and part of his nature, the ideas of free creaturely essences eternally in his mind, independent of their instantiation. Whether or not such essences will in fact be created, and what circumstances they will be in if they are, is something that would depend on his free will. But the truth value of counterfactuals would be grounded in God’s mind, which is rooted in his nature.

By the way, such a notion of God’s knowledge would be unaffected by whether or not you thought God was temporal or timeless, it seems to me.

On God’s Foreknowledge of Possibilities

“God willed the free will of men and angels in spite of His knowledge that it could lead in some cases to sin and then to suffering…” CSL, Letters 6/7/49

To the degree that we are free to do x, it is genuinely possible that we do x. Therefore the fact that we do x cannot be settled before we do it, or that would remove the genuine possibility from our doing x in the first place, and we would not be free to do x. In other words, if our doing x is true before our doing it, then the possibility of x happening would not really be something that we had control over, and performing or not performing it would not be something really possible for us. The genuine possibility of x occurring or not would rest somewhere further back – perhaps in Nature or God’s will – but it would not be found in our free choice.

Many people grant this. In fact all who believe in free will will say that the coming to pass of certain possibilities is genuinely up to us. But at the same time many of these people still hold that God can know, before a possibility is settled, how that possibility will in fact be settled. But I don’t see how this can be.

It seems to me a contradiction to say that God can know a fact as both possible and settled, for to be both possible and settled at the same time is contradictory. What sense would it make to say that I am both “potentially” married and “certainly” married? In fact, to the degree that a thing is possible means that that thing is just so much not settled. And vice versa: for a thing to be settled means that that thing is just so much not possibly different. I am only potentially married if I am not, in fact, actually married. And I am only possibly a father to the extent that I do not actually in the present have any children. In other words, insofar as something is possible, it is not settled; and insofar as a thing is settled, it is not possible.

Here is what follows. If God is in time – and it may be possible for him to be in time in a way that does not exclude his timelessness – then God’s foreknowledge about possible future free choices would itself be knowledge of things possible. This is because what he knows are possibilities, not certainties.

If we have free will, that means we can go either this way or that way. Hence both ways are possible to us. Therefore neither way is settled ahead of time. And if this is so then God’s knowledge of our free will and the matrix of possibilities connected to it would not be of realities that are already settled. This does not mean his knowledge is imperfect or uncertain, anymore than his decision to create free beings makes his omnipotence imperfect or weak. It is just that to the extent that we free (however small or great that is), the what God knows is different than it is regarding things to which we are not free. For what God knows just are free possibilities themselves. Therefore they cannot be settled realities, for that would exclude him knowing them as possibilities. 

This point really comes down to whether or not you think God is able to know possibilities qua possibilities. If he is, then he must know them as open ended realities, as true forks in the road which can either one be taken. He cannot know the same thing as both possibly true and certainly true, for those two metaphysical modalities exclude one another just as right excludes left and good excludes evil. This – along with the grounding objection – is one reason Molinism is an unsatisfactory theory. For if God knows all possibilities ahead of time, even before free creatures exist to actualize them, I can’t see in what sense the possibility is known as a genuine possibility. The facticity of the event is settled from before the foundation of the world, and so never existed as a possibility in the first place.